Islamist extremists capture a young Westerner, holding him
hostage for years. To secure the young man's release -- and his life -- the United
States sets free a militant responsible for the deaths of American citizens in
the Middle East.
If this sketch is ringing a bell, think again. We're not
talking about Bowe Bergdahl, the American soldier released in exchange for five
Taliban fighters held at the Guantanamo Bay prison. We're talking about Peter Moore, a British civilian held hostage
and released by Iraqi militants after American authorities agreed to set free
Qais al-Khazali, a former spokesman for influential Shiite cleric Moqtada
al-Sadr. Moore was kidnapped in Baghdad after he and his bodyguards were
ambushed by Shiite militiamen in 2007. Khazali was implicated in the killing of
five American soldiers in Karbala. By January 2010, both Khazali and Moore
The criticism of and
handwringing over the Bergdahl swap was almost immediate. A constant refrain:
the United States doesn't negotiate with terrorists. But that is more Hollywood
than history. The Khazali-Moore swap is only a recent -- and obscure -- example.
Probably the best known was the Iran-Contra affair, in which the Reagan
administration sold missiles to Tehran to secure the partial release of
American hostages held in Lebanon.
Other deals have been less explicit. In 1985, Israel released
about 700 prisoners -- with tacit American approval -- in what Robert Oakley, a
former State Department counterterrorism coordinator, described to PBS as a
"quid pro quo" for the freedom of
Americans held hostage on a hijacked TWA flight. Wary of public perception,
the Reagan administration allowed Israel to claim that the prisoner release was
pre-planned -- and independent of any terrorist pressure -- instead of formally
requesting a swap.
But negotiations aren't always about individual prisoner
exchanges; they can be integral components of broader peace processes. The list
of case studies from U.S. allies is long. Israel's 2011 exchange of 1,027
Palestinians for Gilad Shalit opened the door to later peace talks. In July 2013, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu greenlighted prisoner
exchanges seen as a prerequisite for the most recent -- and rapidly collapsing --
round of peace talks. Spain's willingness to negotiate with the Basque
separatist group ETA in 1989 set the precedent for final peace talks in 2011.
Perhaps most famously, the British government sat down with the Irish
Republican Army to negotiate an end to "The Troubles" in Northern Ireland.
Such negotiations can be painful. Netanyahu described the release of 104 Palestinian prisoners prior to the 2013 peace talks as "incomparably difficult." And they don't always
work. The Galit exchange and the 1989 talks between ETA
and Madrid were both followed by renewed violence.
Saturday's prisoner exchange with the Taliban was not meant
simply to bring Bergdahl home. The
swap was initially developed in 2011 as a confidence-building measure aimed at
encouraging broader talks with the Taliban. Since Bergdahl's release,
administration officials and the Taliban have poured cold water on the notion that the swap could
signal an opening toward more substantive peace talks between the two.
But Bergdahl's release at least demonstrates that small-scale
negotiations are feasible -- and that the Taliban's representatives in Qatar are
legitimately connected to its forces in Afghanistan.
JOEL ROBINE/AFP/Getty Images